The runner or tennis player or business executive or surgeon who has picked a target has found something to help focus their attention on what they themselves are doing, not on any number of things that are outside their control or tangential to their performance. The spot they pick keeps them focused on each movement, much the same way that injured Tour de France cyclist Tyler Hamilton poured attention into pedaling and thus seemed to forget that he had a broken collarbone. To be sure, all of the above examples begin by looking at something. The real common thread, though is that the target is in the mind, taking it over, occupying it, like an invading army. The sneaker mark in the deuce court, the shadow on the road, the emotional response of the client across the desk—all are in their minds and no longer in their eyes when performers actually pull the trigger. When a golfer takes his backswing, he actually is no longer looking at his target; it's in his mind. When a runner is locked into footprints on the pavement, it's an image in her head; she actually may be gazing toward the horizon. And when a tennis player is gunning for the line, his physical vision is fully buried in the ball.
The fact that one's eyes are actively doing on think while one's head is absorbed in the target leaves no room to do or think anything else. That is precisely why the body works so efficiently in such moments: You can't process strategy or mechanics, and you cannot definitely assess long-term consequences. In short, picking a target and filling your mind with it streamlines what you are doing, makes it simple, clear, uncomplicated. A target connects your actions with the vision in your head.
In the 1999 movie For the Love of the Game, Kevin Costner plays Villy Chapel, an aging Hall-of-Fame-bound baseball pitcher in the final appearance of his career. In the action sequences, he is on the mound in a dogfight in his rival's home stadium: The fans are going crazy, the pressure is intense, and Billy Chapel is trying to gather himself "Clear the mechanism," he says to himself, and suddenly the roar of the crowd is muffled. Everything around him gets blurred except his point of view of the catcher's mitt. He's in the Zone—or at least, the Hollywood version of the Zone
In real life it doesn't work that way. No matter how much we might want to block out all distractions during an important situation, so long as we are awake or not in a coma, the sensory system is in full gear receiving stimuli and sending signals to the brain. Each of our senses is actually a chemical/mechanical device. The ear picks up sound waves through the vibration of small bones called "ossicles"; concat from objects alters the structure of skin cell membranes; light waves are absorbed by the cornea and reflected onto the retina; food particles cause a chemical reaction in the papillae on the tongue. While each sensation stimulates an electrical signal to the brain, the cause is purely mechanical or chemical. And. therefore, no matter how hard the Hollywood pitcher tries to "clear the mechanism," the mechanism is going to continue being physically manipulated by incoming information. Like a ball bearing dropped down a track in a physics lab, sensory perceptions keep rolling. If you blow on a moving ball bearing or try to nudge it from the track, it keeps going because, as Newton's third law of Motion long ago explained, things in motion tend to stay in motion unless something extremely significant interferes. Similarly, as much as a pitcher might want to make the distracting sights and sounds go away—not to mention all those memories of games past, when the batters raked the next pitch out of the park—he will not be able to make that happen, unless something extremely significant gets in the way.
The "significant something" can be the right target. I suspect that you have experienced the benefit of a target already during those occasional times when you have become so engrossed in the activity or another that the rest of your sensations seem to have stepped out for a coffee break. Such target is, to give an extreme example, why armed-robbery victims make such poor eyewitnesses. When the police ask them to describe the thieves and exactly what happened, victims often draw a blank or give a very superficial account if the events. Why? "All I could see was the gun pointed at me," a typical explanation goes. No matter how many other people were in the rom and no matter what they were doing, the victim literally only had eyes for the weapon. Like Tyler Hamilton being forced into intense concentration in order to get through the Tour de France in spite of his pain, the robbery victim experiences unusual mental compression by the presence of a gun—an item that dominates attention entirely. Does that mean that your other senses have been shut down? No, your cortex is still receiving the same information, but when neurons are firing, they cannot stop and retire; they have a refractory period before they can fire again. So despite the flood f incoming data, your mind is already too busy to process other information consciously. when you are buried in a gripping noel, you don't hear the train passing by, or smell the dog slobbering on his old bone, or see the kids running through the living room, tracking mud everywhere.
The mountain climber moves up the face of the cliff locking her eyes on each handhold, grabbing it, making sure her grip is firm, listening for any loose rock; she steps onto a jutting stone, one foot, then another, testing its solidity, all the while sensing the tension on her safety wire. Skilled climbers work their way cautiously up a deep face, seemingly part of the mountain; they get absorbed in their work because in their line of work a distraction can be fatal. There is no room in their minds for anything but what it takes to make this particular climb, one hold and one step at a time.
High performers only want to attend to the perceptual cues (visual, tactile, auditory, etc.) that work in their favor and process those one or two simple, narrow targets so intently that their brain is busy with only a small piece of information—creating in effect, their own "clear the mechanism," moment. High performers allow their concentration to affect reality, not the other way around.
In good health,
Efren Guerrero Rodriguez
High Performance Personal Training.